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Movie Review: "Invincible"

Man, they had some seriously bad hairstyles in the 1970's.

I'm just as guilty as the rest of them, incidentally -- I had shoulder-length hair and a fu-manchu mustache back then, just like some of the South Philly guys in "Invincible".

No, I'm not posting a photo of myself in those days.

The basic storyline here, you know: Vince Papale is a wannabe athlete, who played a bit of high school ball and was a track star in college, who is a diehard fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. The movie plays a bit fast-and-loose with the facts; it sets up the story that after Dick Vermeil takes over as Eagles coach, he has an open tryout for players in which Papale is selected from among thousands, including a guy 100 pounds overweight, balding (who claims he's 28 and looks 50), wearing a green cape.

In reality, Papale played two years for the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell and came to the attention of the Eagles that way, and had a private workout for Vermeil, after which he was signed. Here is an article that gives some of Papale's backstory.

But that wouldn't make a great movie, would it -- especially not a great Disney movie, where they want the heartwarming rags-to-riches story. Papale goes with his friends to a late-season Eagles game in 1975, where they throw snowballs at the players (this did really happen, including a scene which is referenced in the film, throwing snowballs at a Santa Claus who was at a game). Afterwards he goes back to his life as a substitute teacher and bartender -- and then it takes a turn for the worse, when the school lets him go due to budget cutbacks, and then his wife leaves him.

This is just in time for the bar owner to hire his cousin from New York, Janet (Elizabeth Banks), who provides both the new love interest for Vince and some comic relief, because she's a big fan of the New York Giants, the Eagles' biggest rival (and both teams were horrendously bad in those days).

The tryout happens, Papale makes the team after working his butt off and being hazed by the regular players who don't think he belongs (although one lineman befriends him and in one critical scene, lets him in on a football secret which will later help Vince make an important play in the first game the Eagles won under Vermeil).

Mark Wahlberg is very good as Papale; he plays him with a determination that shows every time he gets pounded to the turf by a teammate (in training camp) or an opponent. Wahlberg said he took almost all the hits himself, without help from stunt people. Greg Kinnear is so eerily similar to Vermeil that you'll do double-takes in some scenes -- and you can also see how the single-mindedness of Vermeil, which allowed him to take the formerly sad-sack Eagles to the 1981 Super Bowl, eventually forced him to leave coaching for fifteen years and get into broadcasting.

But the most affecting relationship in the film is between Papale and his father, played by Kevin Conway. We learn how Papale's mother had been very sick and how his dad had raised him, and being fans of the Eagles had brought the two of them closer together. At one point, the father says, in discussing the 1948 NFL Championship game, the Eagles' first NFL title, in which running back Steve Van Buren scored the game's only touchdown in a blinding snowstorm:

Steve Van Buren and that game gave me enough to keep me going for thirty years.
He was talking about two things: it kept him going as a man, being able to raise his son, and it kept him going as an Eagles fan, and this is right at the time when Vince is about to give up and quit, and his dad wanted to encourage him to keep going.

Damn, I thought, this is all we've ever wanted too, as Cubs fans. For them to get those last five damned outs. Just make it once, to keep us going.

This is a fine movie with some excellent performances, and if it weren't a true story it'd be way too hokey for words. But since you know this is about real people, you're riveted to find out what happens next, and the final scenes would be too unbelievable if they weren't true.

Well worth seeing.


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